We Love the Southwest Blog #1 Sierra Blanca Mountains.
The intent of We Love the Southwest is to be something like a travel blog of the Southwest United States. As a geologist, I’ve been blessed to have worked and traveled extensively over the 4 Corners States for many years. I’ve been further blessed to have a companion who loves to travel as much as I do. We’re not travelers of an international sort, but rather we like to step off the beaten path and look for the minutia of any given place. Both of us love the high desert and it’s impossible not to love scenery of the Southwest.
So settle in and feel free to ask questions. Our contact information is kinda obvious………
The Sierra Blanca Mountains, Part 1.
Part 1 of this blog covers the general geology and geography of the Sierra Blanca Mountains as well as a few road trips. We don’t try to be exhaustive, you’ve got Google for that, but we do try to share the odd tidbits and interesting facts that may or may not be in Google. We also throw in some cool photography as well.
Like most of us, we can blame the really good things that happened to us before 12 years old on our parents. And perhaps the most amazing thing that happened to me is that my parents loved getting away from the high plains for the high mountains. This was an every summer occurrence until well after all of the children had left home.
Little did my grandparents realize that a budding geologist was present in the picture below. Can you guess which one is me? This in 1963 and I later ended up driving that 59 Impala for a brief period at 16. My grandmother also drove us out to their ranch in the summer in that car. We had this song…….
Jingle bells, Shotgun shells
Rabbits all the way.
Oh what fun it is to ride
in Granny’s Chevrolet. Hey!
The picture was taken in Cowles, NM which is on the Pecos east of Santa Fe. I don’t remember the photo but I do remember a general fascination with the fact that nothing was level that had dirt on it, the rocks were awesome, and it was so green. And that there was an actual river with fish! This was a big deal for a two year old from the plains of Portales.
As a family we never went back to Cowles as we found other mountains closer. They were the Sierra Blanca’s and a love affair was born. It’s odd but as a surveyor I was in Cowles in 1995 and believe I actually found the place where this photo was taken.
The Sierra Blanca Mountains (also called the White Mountains) are the remains of an old shield volcano in south central New Mexico and are the northern most extent of the Sacramento Mountains. The Sacramento Mountains stretch from the Guadalupe Mountains in the south (think Carlsbad) to Sierra Blanca and Capitan. Sierra Blanca is part of a mid-Tertiary volcanic event also related to the Mogollon and Gila events. It’s rather interesting in that about 3000′ of the volcano is now missing due to erosion. Add that back to the 11,973 current height and you get a whopper of a peak. It’s also interesting to note that when I first started studying Sierra Blanca the peak elevation was quoted at 12009. Somewhere 36 feet has wandered off though part of that was due to a rock slide.
All those pretty colors mean that the rocks are essentially the same age on a grand scale and are volcanic in origin. Andesite is the predominate rock type in the form of plugs, pyroclastic flows, dikes and a few small sills. The black lines on the map are faults and the big ones that trend Northeast are of huge importance. More on that later.
Google Earth photograph showing Sierra Blanca and surrounding countryside.
As you can see from the above Google Earth satellite, Sierra Blanca is a big place. And we humans have been running around it for many, many years. The first time I really ever paid much attention to that fact was upon stumbling onto a whole bunch of petroglyphs. Several sets of these were determined to be pre-contact. Later discoveries in this area were obviously post contact due to their nature. One should remember that the Carrizozo-Carizo-Nogal Mesa-Capitan-Lincoln-Hondo arc was a cradle for a small group of peoples (by current standards of course). Petroglphys, pot shards and projectile points as well as dwelling sites are plentiful in this arc.
Also, please don’t ask where these are. They have lain undisturbed since about 1450 and certainly should remain that way.
Sierra Blanca Geography.
The Sierra Blanca Range (also known as the White Mountains), is a subrange of the much larger Sacramento Mountains in southern New Mexico. The Sierra Blancas run north-south for about 40 miles. The highest point in the range, as well as the southern half of New Mexico, is Sierra Blanca Peak, at 11,973 feet elevation. Sierra Blanca Peak rises 8,000 feet from the Tularosa Basin to the west, and with a prominence of 5,543 feet, it holds the distinction as the only ultra-prominence peak in New Mexico. It is also the southernmost glaciated peak in the continental United States.
The majority of the range is in the Lincoln National Forest, with a portion within the boundaries of the White Mountain Wilderness Area. Much of the southern portion of the range, including Sierra Blanca Peak, are part of the Mescalero Apache Reservation.
Rainfall ranges from >40 inches per year to less than 12. Rainy seasons are typically July-September. Snowfall is sufficient in most years for excellent skiing at Ski Apache though snow making is yearly. Summers are mild due to alpine conditions with very cold winters. Wind is typically New Mexican with the worst of it in spring.
The geography of the area was substantially altered by the Little Bear fire of 2012. The Little Bear Fire was started by a lightning strike in the White Mountain Wilderness Area in south-central New Mexico on June 4, 2012; suppression activities were instigated by the Lincoln National Forest that afternoon. A preliminary fire line had been completed around the fire perimeter by the afternoon of the 8th. However, later that day, high winds lifted fire embers beyond the fire line, leading to a fire that burned a total of 44,330 acres (35,339 on Lincoln National Forest, 357 on Mescalero Tribal land, 112 on State of New Mexico land, and 8,522 on private land), 242 houses, and 12 structures.
This area is still struggling to recover. On a happier note many of the beetle and bore damaged trees were destroyed as well as the pests that fed upon them. The fire also cleared a substantial chunk of pinon/juniper infestation. It’s still heartbreaking to realize that my children’s children’s children might just see the area back to what it was like for me as a child.
Area economics are driven primarily by tourism. The Sierra Blanca’s are often considered a small piece of Texas surrounded by New Mexico and at certain times of the year that does seem to be true. Horse racing and skiing are the primary draws along with an autumn motorcycle rally. Ruidoso is the focus for tourism with numerous hotels. The Inn of the Mountain Gods is an exceptional resort located near Ruidoso.
The outlying areas of Nogal, Capitan, Lincoln, Hondo, San Patricio Tinny and Glencoe still see substantial ranching activity. Ranching is the predominate agricultural activity in the area.
Sierra Blanca also saw substantial mining activity though no large scale mining was ever done. The Nogal and Bonito Mining Districts were heavily explored and numerous abandon workings are present. Major mines were the Helen Rae/ American, Parsons, Crow and Great Western. The last active mine, the Helen Rae discovered in 1884, ceased operations in 1990 when the author destroyed the last of the explosives left on the property. Small scale placer mining still occurs in Nogal Canyon. The next blog in this series will deal with mining in the Sierra Blancas.
Things to do.
The Big Loop:
If you have a day to just drive around and see the sights, try this route. Assuming you’re staying in Ruidoso, you’ll travel some perfectly beautiful mountain roads from Ruidoso to Mescalero. After Mescalero you’ll be dropping rapidly down into the Tularosa Basin. Sierra Blanca is now behind you and to the north. Ahead is the basin with White Sands as a side trip if you wish.
From Tularosa head north on 54 to Carrizozo. A short side trip to Three Rivers is well worth it. And don’t forget to check out the Three Rivers Petroglyph site on the way in.
On 54 you’ll be paralleling the Sierra Blanca escarpment and you’ll have beautiful views of Sierra Blanca and the ski area, Nogal Peak, Church Mountain, and Diamond Peak. Turn right on Highway 380 in Carrizozo.
Also in Carrizozo, a railroad town of yesteryear, do take a moment to visit Valley of Fires just a short drive to the west on 380. The malpais (Spanish for rough or broken ground) or lava flow here is about 5000 years old and is one of the youngest basaltic lava flows in the US. It’s particularly amazing how much vegetation has grown in the 40 years I’ve been around the flow. In 1978 there was no grass or shrub on the flow at all and only one little tree near the road with a smattering of cactus. Obviously much has changed.
And if you’ve gone to the lava flow go just a bit more west on 380. Drive up to the top of the hill and turn around. The view is outstanding and the full sweep of Sierra Blanca and surrounds is outstanding. Starting at the highest peak and moving east or to your left you’ll have Sierra Blanca, Nogal, Church, then a small valley in which the town of Nogal is nestled, the Vera Cruz Mountain, Carrizo Peak (Huge), then Baxter Mountain (White Oaks area) then Lone Mountain and finally the hills around Ancho and Corona. Wow!
From Carrizozo head east on 380. About 12 miles outside of Carrizozo is the turn off to NM37. This road will take you back to Ruidoso. More on this later. Up ahead is Capitan, and old coal mining town now into ranching and the home of Smokey the Bear. Check out the link for more of his story. And parts of the highway you’re driving on are the remains of an old narrow gauge railway that ran from Carrizozo to Capitan. In the cuts before Indian Divide you can see the older cuts for the railroad quite clearly.
From Capitan head east on 380 to Lincoln, home of the Lincoln County Wars which some believe have never really stopped. Lincoln is one of my favorite places and Google has a wealth of information. Do have lunch at the Wortley if they are open. I’ve stayed there often and highly recommend it.
Form Lincoln take 380 still eastward to the intersection of 380 and 70. Just to the east of here on 70 is the town of Tinnie. The Tinnie Silver Dollar is located there if the Wortley isn’t available for lunch.
Finally head west on 70 and back to Ruidoso. You’ll pass Ruidoso Downs if you’re into horse racing.
The Little Loop:
This one is my personal favorite as it has lots of variation. The first of these needs little explanation as it’s just a small chunk of the Big Loop. It’s a beautiful drive, easy with little traffic usually but it can get a bit crowded on the weekends.
Variations on the Little Loop.
Below is a fun little variation on the Little loop. Use County Road 220 (better known as Airport Road). This takes you over and through Fort Stanton which is always good for a full day of historical distraction. I learn something new every time I go there. And ask about how the Fort was used in WWII. You’ll be surprised.
And finally my absolutely most favorite drive. Yes, the roads do connect but Google hasn’t figured that out yet.
This is an outstanding drive that is mostly accessible year road to passenger vehicles. Certainly the lower stretches around Bonito Lake and Nogal Canyon are. The jump of the top of the hill where the Nogal Peak Trailhead is often difficult for low slung vehicles. In the summer of 1984 I ran a 76′ Pontiac Sunbird up and down those hills working on a drilling project. If you go slow you can get a sports car almost anywhere. That Buick 231 engine sure helped though.
In Part two of this blog I will explore the above drive in great detail. I’ve been around Nogal Canyon and Bonito Lake since the early 60’s. We’ll chat about history, mining, wild life, and life in general in the loop around highway 37 through Nogal can yon and Bonito.